Story: Interdenominational Christianity

Page 3. Education

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Bible in Schools

From 1877 the compulsory primary school education provided by the state was officially secular (non-religious). After this only the Catholic Church retained widespread involvement in education. Protestants recognised that secular schools could not take account of their specific denominations, but from the 1880s they became concerned about the exclusion of the Bible from education. In 1911 the Bible in State Schools League was reorganised to campaign for non-denominational Bible knowledge as a compulsory part of the curriculum. The campaign was interrupted by the First World War and never regained its momentum.

Our hour

New Zealand’s Bible in Schools programme is known as the ‘Nelson system’, because it was started in Nelson by the Scottish-born clergyman Reverend James Mackenzie in 1897. At that time schools were officially secular and required to teach for at least four hours a day. McKenzie realised that since the schools were open for five hours, one hour could legally be used for voluntary religious instruction. In 2006 Bible in Schools operated in about 60% of New Zealand state primary schools for half-hour sessions, with about 4,000 volunteer instructors. Around 5% of pupils chose not to attend the classes. The merits of the programme have been strongly debated in recent years.

‘The Nelson system’

In 1897 Reverend James Mackenzie of Nelson gained permission from his local school committee to present a non-denominational Bible-study programme before the official start of the school day. That became a highly successful alternative where it was permitted by regional education boards and followed a curriculum organised by the New Zealand Council for Christian Education (in 1974 renamed the Churches Education Commission). It was authorised by the Education Amendment Act 1964 and continued under the Education Act 1989, subject to the permission of school trustees. Parents could withdraw their children from any religious instruction. At times this issue has provoked noisy debates in local communities.

Crusader Movement

In state high schools religion was not banned, and school assemblies often provided a simple Protestant content, while elite church schools were based on specific denominations. In 1930 a visit from British evangelist Dr Howard Guinness led to the formation of the evangelical Crusader Movement, which spread to most state secondary schools. Since the 1980s high schools have been more cautious about permitting religious groups to hold activities during the school day.

University students’ groups

In the universities the Student Christian Movement (SCM), founded by the American John Mott and established in New Zealand in 1921, led students to become involved in social issues and to volunteer as missionaries overseas. One of those, William Pettit, became discontented with the growing liberalism of the SCM and led a breakaway movement from 1928. In 1936 this became the Inter-Varsity Fellowship of Evangelical Unions, and in 1973 it was renamed the Tertiary Students Christian Fellowship. In the 1950s the SCM promoted the establishment of interdenominational chaplains in many universities. The level of student Christian activity has declined in recent years, reflecting the increasing secularisation of New Zealand society, although a diverse range of religious organisations are active on campuses around the country. 

How to cite this page:

Peter J. Lineham, 'Interdenominational Christianity - Education', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 July 2024)

Story by Peter J. Lineham, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 9 Aug 2018